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A move to safer chemicals? Ten years of the EU’s REACH chemicals regulation

The EUs system for regulating chemicals, REACH, came into force 10 years ago, on the 1st June 2007. It aimed to gather reliable safety data on chemicals that are used in Europe, and to control those with problems, substituting them with safer alternatives. It was one of the most complex and controversial regulatory proposals that the EU has ever produced, with many exaggerated claims made of its negative impacts on EU industry – claims which have been disproved over the last ten years.

ECHA, Helsinki

The view of environmental groups on the final REACH text was that REACH was “alive, but not kicking“, with REACH being a huge step forward, but significant gaps and loopholes remained.The groups also emphasised the importance of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), stating that “The new EU Chemicals Agency in Helsinki will have to be closely monitored to ensure that REACH can deliver“.

Ten years on, as the EU undertakes its second five year evaluation of REACH, it’s an opportunity to briefly look back and look forward at how we got here & where next for REACH.

The creation of REACH

REACH was created because it became clear that the previous EU rules for regulating chemicals, the ‘New’ and ‘Existing’ chemicals laws, were not properly protecting health and the environment. For example, there was too little safety data on the vast majority of “Existing chemicals” (chemicals that had been on the market since before 1981), companies did not know enough about how their chemicals were used, and the processes to restrict chemicals of concern were slow and ineffective.

The first open stakeholder event on the revision of these chemicals policies was the “Brainstorming Workshop on Chemicals” on 24-25th February 1999, at which two members of the CHEM Trust team, Michael Warhurst and Gwynne Lyons, spoke on behalf of Friends of the Earth and WWF respectively. Michael Warhurst’s presentation on Hazard vs Risk: Towards more precautionary regulation of chemicals” is available here.

After more discussion, the European Commission published a  “White Paper on the Strategy for a future Chemicals Policy” in February 2001, which outlined the REACH system, including a central chemical agency (now called ECHA). WWF’s detailed comments on this paper – written by CHEM Trust’s Gwynne Lyons and Elizabeth Salter Green – show a qualified welcome.

The long and controversial EU process for developing and finalising REACH is described on a European Commission web page, and there’s a more comprehensive timeline at the Lowell Chemicals Policy and Science Initiative. The WWF publication “The REACH files: A policy guide” (written by CHEM Trust Executive Director Michael Warhurst when he was working at WWF’s European Policy Office) gives an insight into the REACH debate as at December 2004, including claims from German and French business associations that REACH could cut Germany’s GDP by up to 6.4% and French GDP by up to 3.2%. These studies were condemned by other economists, but they were an important part of the political debate about REACH at the time.

WWF initiated a number of human biomonitoring studies, where blood samples from adults and children (and politicians) were analysed for industrial chemicals. These studies demonstrated that the topic of chemical contamination is something that directly concerns us all and helped focus the REACH debate on human health and environmental contamination. Ninja Reineke, who is now CHEM Trust’s Senior Policy Adviser, took a leading role in the WWF Detox campaign from 2005, working at the WWF EU Policy Office in Brussels.

Once REACH was passed, civil society groups have continued to work to explain it and have engaged in the detailed implementation to ensure that it would properly improve chemical management in Europe. In 2007 – the year REACH came into force – civil society groups published a brochure on “Navigating REACH“, which aimed to explain how REACH works, and what civil society groups should do to help ensure that it was properly implemented.

CHEM Trust was founded in 2007,  so we are also 10 years old – for more about our history see this page about our 10th anniversary.

The 10th Anniversary of REACH

2017 is the 10th anniversary of REACH coming into legal force; the law was finalised in December 2006, with an implementation date of 1st June 2007. The main policy-focussed event of 2017 is the second five yearly evaluation of REACH; CHEM Trust has already responded to a consultation on this evaluation, with our key conclusion being:

“REACH is an important and world-leading policy, but it does have some flaws. We hope that this review process will lead to real improvements in the way REACH works, and consequently reduces the exposure of people and the environment to harmful chemicals.”

One major problem has been the lack of good quality safety data in many registration dossiers, with Geert Dancet, ECHA’s Executive Director admitting that there were particular problems in the Foreword of ECHA’s “Evaluation progress report 2016

The five-year report on the operation of REACH and CLP published in June 2016 showed that, whilst companies are clearly responding to the legislation, a significant proportion of registration dossiers are still not of a sufficient quality and the majority of the dossiers have never been updated since their first submission.”

This issue of data quality was one key aspect of a joint letter to ECHA which CHEM Trust and other environmental NGOs sent in November 2016, which eventually led to a meeting between the NGOs (including CHEM Trust’s Dr Michael Warhurst) and ECHA senior staff, including the Executive Director, on 6th June 2017. A range of issues were discussed, including data quality and the availability of safer alternatives. Chemical Watch reported on this meeting, including this comment:

‘Although Echa and the NGOs “shared interest” in improving quality and compliance of registration dossiers, said Dolores Romano, senior policy officer at the EEB, “there was no agreement on how to achieve this. The question raised by the NGOs on the number of dossiers that are compliant with REACH requirements remains unanswered.”‘

ECHA have their own press release on the 10y anniversary. In a video message at ECHA’s 10th anniversary event on 7th June, former EU Commissioner Margot Wallström remembered the impact of discovering how many chemicals were present in her blood, in tests done by WWF as part of their Detox campaign on REACH (see above).

The next significant milestone for REACH is the final deadline for registering safety data on ‘Existing Chemicals’, at the end of May 2018. CHEM Trust also awaits the results of Commission’s REACH evaluation with interest – it is due out towards the end of 2017.